A pilot music therapy program with at-risk youth
By Meera Sinha and Betsy Gifford, MusicWorx Interns
One of the most unique aspects of an internship at MusicWorx, Inc. is the opportunity to develop and implement your own program. Some interns choose to embark on technology-based programs, such as creating an online course to help interns succeed during their internship experience. You can read about the first stages of that program here.
For my project, I decided to pursue a pilot with “at-risk” youth, alongside my co-intern, Betsy Gifford. For purposes of this project, Betsy and I defined “at-risk” youth as persons who are: low income, experiencing homelessness, associated with the foster system, LGBTQIA+, and/or involved with incarceration.
The process of deciding on this project and collaborating on it was extensive. Betsy and I view the world very differently, and we were hesitant about working together due to our conflicting styles of communication. However, the purpose of the project outweighed any hesitations. It was incredibly important to me to pursue this project, as this is a population that is incredibly underserved. Likewise, this pilot was going to be used to gather data in order to apply for grants, so this population would gain more music therapy services in the future.
The project started with a surprising networking opportunity. I had agreed to work a booth at the LiveWell San Diego 5K in July, and through that event, I was able to establish connections with a number of organizations that serve “at-risk” youth in San Diego. The follow-up process was grueling but crucial. During this phase, Betsy and I had many email exchanges, phone calls, and meetings. We ultimately arranged a group at each of two different facilities:
- TAY Academy is a safe, inclusive space for Transitional Aged Youth (ages 14-25). It offers services for basic human needs, substance abuse, sexual health, housing, mental health, life skills, and artistic expression. The purpose of the facility and program is to support youth on their journey to independence and self-sufficiency.
- Safe Destination (SD) Nights is an initiative to give youth (ages 8-16) a safe space to spend their Thursday through Sunday evenings. SD Nights offers recreational activities at teen centers and schools in San Diego County. We implemented music therapy services at the Spring Valley Teen Center location of SD Nights.
Initially, I was interested in doing a 6 to 8 week program in a prison system. As I talked with my internship director and co-interns, my interest shifted to working with at-risk youth. As that concept began to unfold and develop, my co-intern Meera and I decided we would do a joint special project with the purpose of gathering data to apply for a grant to fund a continued program working with this population.
Despite the fact that I am barely removed from that age range, I don’t feel as though I know that much about youth. I have limited experience working with groups, have a strong dislike-bordering-on-fear of socializing (which is a crucial component of networking and establishing a pilot program), and know nothing about what type of data or information is needed for grants. These obstacles I foresaw for myself were precisely what led Meera and I to deciding to do our special project together. My weaknesses are her strengths, and vice versa. Initially, we thought that she would do the administrative work and I would do the clinical work. We soon discovered that neither of us really wanted that arrangement. Instead, we tag-teamed for the entire project and depended on each other to fill in the blanks and pick up the slack as needed.
One of the things we immediately discovered working together is that we are incredibly different people. I have never met someone who was so much my opposite. We did not allow our differences to keep us from improving our communication and bringing our uniqueness together to develop a well-rounded therapeutic approach. That is not to say that we did not have any difficulties aligning our ideas and personalities to work together, something our co-interns can attest to. The process of deciding to name our project “Resounding Resilience” just about did us in! But despite the many times we stared at each other blankly in confusion or had raised-voice conversations (not to be confused with arguments), I have felt that co-facilitating this pilot program with Meera has been one of the most beneficial aspects of my internship.
On our first day of sessions, I was bursting with excitement. I was quickly met with a slap of reality when I realized the facilities and programs were not what I had expected. Our first day taught me the first of many lessons I would learn throughout this process: unrealistic expectations are an invitation for disappointment.
Betsy and I left our first day feeling discouraged, but I still had lingering hope that this pilot program would turn into something beautiful. Throughout this experience, I will say I had more moments of self-doubt than those of confidence. I was discouraged many times, but for some reason we kept going. Looking back, I realize one key theme that prevailed over all the disorganized drum circles, screaming, and tears: the music. The music connects us, encourages communication, and provides a safe space for emotional expression. It’s the whole reason we’re here.
When the day of our first session arrived, I was incredibly nervous about what we were about to undertake. On our way to the facilities, Meera and I spoke about how she felt more comfortable with the older youth at TAY Academy and I felt more comfortable with the younger teens at SD Nights. What actually happened in the sessions was the complete opposite of what we’d imagined. We ended up being more comfortable with the opposite groups than we’d thought! While both sessions were a little rough, our first session at SD Nights was particularly challenging. We had planned for youth aged 13-16, but instead had a group of about twelve youth aged 9-13, the majority of whom were boys who really loved playing the drums we had brought and didn’t particularly care about the instructions we were giving. By the time we left the facility, I was nearly in tears and seriously doubting whether we could continue with this group for another seven weeks. But quitting was not an option, as Meera so gently reminded me after that first week. We could and would finish the program!
The most beautiful moments in this program revolved around profound musical experiences.
Our third week at TAY Academy, Betsy and I facilitated an improvisatory songwriting activity with the participants. A few of us in the group were playing ukulele, while others were listening and joking around. I asked the participants to sing about their days, and they added in funny lyrics. Then Betsy and I started asking about times that were challenging and how they got through it, and one participant shared lyrics about how music and his family are huge support systems for him. The other participant admitted he didn’t have coping strategies that aren’t related to drugs. This confession was a turning point in the session because the tone and content of the lyrics became more emotional, and the music allowed the space for that to happen.
The experiences Betsy and I had at SD Nights was scarily similar to a roller-coaster with drastic highs and lows, twists and turns, and even flying through the air upside-down. Even though the roller-coaster was scary and sometimes frustrating, a number of beautiful moments brought me to tears.
Our third session at SD Nights was a turning point. During this session, we facilitated a lyric analysis activity, which means we asked the participants to closely read the lyrics and circle any phrases that stood out to them. The song we used for this activity was Growing Pains by Alessia Cara. After the song was over, we asked the participants to share what they thought the song was about. Many of them shared interpretations revolving around experiencing pain, grief, trauma, abuse, etc. We encouraged them to put their thoughts into a creative arts activity.
This session reminded me that many of these participants have likely experienced more hardship in their lives than I ever have. It also reminded me not to underestimate the emotional intelligence of youth. I had assumed that these participants did not have the capabilities of deep emotional expression due to the previous experiences we had, but I learned that making assumptions and having expectations can be very detrimental. This session was a good reminder to continue evaluating and understanding my biases and privileges.
Not until the third week did I feel as though we were achieving what we had planned. On that third week, we facilitated lyric analysis and mandalas. Lyric analysis is basically just what it sounds like; we provided the participants with lyric sheets to a song and instructed them to circle any lyrics they found meaningful while listening to the song. Afterwards, each participant had an opportunity to share what they’d marked and why. Mandalas are a creative art tool that allows participants to draw anything they would like. Mandalas can be based on a prompt or be a free draw. We gave them the prompt of drawing something based off the song we had just done a lyric analysis of and played the song again while the participants were drawing. When the song ended, each of the participants was still busy drawing their mandalas and they immediately requested having more time to finish their mandalas. Meera and I were shocked that they were taking the activity so seriously and were so engaged in what they were doing.
Our fifth session at TAY Academy was also impactful, this time due to a group songwriting activity. The participants were encouraged to think about what they would tell their younger selves, and what resulted was a beautiful pre-chorus and chorus.
You’re not the people around you
We’re all different, we’re all different
Let go of the sadness
And search for happiness
All you need to do is love yourself
Your worries will go away
All you need to do is love yourself
You’re gonna be okay
Seeing the enthusiasm of the group members in regards to this songwriting activity made the program at TAY Academy worth it. Though we did not have many participants at this facility, it was clear to me that the music and our therapeutic relationship was beneficial in providing a safe space for the groups.
The most beautiful moment of our entire project happened during our sixth session at SD Nights. Two participants showed up for our group, which allowed us to cater exactly to their needs. They chose to engage in improvisation and active music-making, otherwise known as jamming. Through this musical experience, it felt like we were communicating effectively, telling stories, and sharing our thoughts and feelings. Truthfully, there are no words I can use to describe the beauty of connecting with others through music, but I wish it was an experience everyone had.
Another impactful session we had at SD Nights was during the sixth week. The students who typically came to our group were on fall break from school and many of them were not at the facility that night. As a result, we only had two participants rather than the twelve we usually had. Since we had such as small group, we allowed the participants to choose everything we did in the session. They chose improvisatory music making for the whole session, which was the first session that I have every truly felt the power of communicating through music. Both of the participants were actively engaged the entire time and stated feeling more relaxed and calm after the session.
This project pushed me in ways I wasn’t expecting, especially in my creativity, patience, communication skills, and empathy. It was a challenge, but the result was incredible and I am so grateful for this experience.
By the time we finished the program, I felt much more comfortable and competent with the population of at-risk youth ages 10-25. My musical, therapeutic, and personal skills improved as a direct result of working with Meera. Although our sanity might have been somewhat questionable after all we’d gone through, I am undoubtedly a better music therapist now. We may never really know the impact we’ve had on the participants in our groups, but we certainly impacted each other by collaborating on this program. I am incredibly thankful that Meera and I were able to work together on our special project and had this opportunity to learn and grow together.